Tyra Williams and Angel Graves are no strangers to being “really in it” with families in crisis, and they work tirelessly to compassionately assist families. They work at Seattle Public Schools’ McKinney-Vento department, a national program designed to assist students and families experiencing homelessness.
Since one in every 18 students in Seattle Public Schools is experiencing homelessness, assisting families in transition is no easy feat (over 7,000 students are homeless county-wide). But if anyone can do it, it’s Tyra and Angel.
I first met them when I reached out about an African-American student I was working with who was being discriminated against and disciplined harshly due to being one of the only kids of color at his school. Tyra and Angel were quick to empathize with the injustice and immediately instructed me to contact the district’s discipline Ombudsman and a host of other organizations. They are both products of Seattle Public Schools, have kids that attended school in the district, and are acutely aware of the racial disproportionality within Seattle Public Schools.
“I mean, you can look at the stats, 87% of kids experiencing homelessness in our district are kids of color.” Disproportionate discipline is a huge issue in our district as well, so the McKinney-Vento office is pushing for alternatives to punitive discipline, such as restorative justice and trauma-informed care.
“Especially for our homeless students, pushing them out of school with suspensions or expulsions is just not right. If they get suspended, what home are they supposed to go to? We’ve been working with schools to better understand this and come up with alternatives when necessary, like in-school suspensions. Education is really the only way to move out of poverty,” says Tyra, who has worked for Seattle Public Schools for over 20 years. “As I continued my own education, I realized it leads to self-efficacy and living a full and healthy life.”
Tyra is passionate about providing families with the tools they need to navigate the school system and advocate for their children. “I’ve seen the challenges of navigating the system firsthand with my kids as a single mom. It’s crucial to support single parents and armor them with information and resources so their kids can be successful. I don’t sugarcoat anything either – I tell it like it is and set high expectations for families, because they can reach them.”
Angel also has firsthand experience with the system, as a mother and throughout her own childhood.
“I went through the same thing when I was a kid, moving around a lot, staying in shelters … school was my safe haven from all the craziness I had to deal with at home. I had to grow up so fast, just like the kids we work with … and here I am on the other side, breaking the cycle and helping other families navigate the system. It’s so rewarding to help make people’s lives easier, and I know how big a difference it makes to families when they feel like they have someone on their side who understands what they’re going through.”
I was recently working with a mom at Broadview Shelter who previously had terrible experiences talking to district personnel. She felt they were asking invasive questions, judging her family situation, and not assisting her. A few days later, Angel stopped by the shelter to talk to her in person, and the young mom felt much more supported and listened to, like “I was an actual person.”
Tyra laments that’s one of the biggest challenges she faces in her work: helping adults understand the sensitive nature and needs of family homelessness district-wide. There’s often misconceptions about why families are homeless (victim-blaming, prejudiced assumptions, etc), which translates to kids feeling unwelcome in the classroom or like they don’t fit in at school.
“Sometimes schools will actually think a family is lying about a student being homeless just because they have an iPhone or come to school in nice clothes. There’s just a lot of misconceptions out there, and not everyone is trained to build trust with parents, so instead they shame or blame them.”
Tyra learned years ago through her work on the frontlines at John Marshall High School that positive relationships are what make the biggest difference to students in crisis.
“When kids used to act up, I’d take them on walks around Greenlake after school and really work to figure out what they wanted out of life, stressing education and how they were going to get there. Having me in their ear all the way around the lake was their form of punishment,” she laughs.
There’s no doubt those walks around the lake made a profound difference in the lives of students, some of which rarely received positive, one-on-one attention. Tyra shares she was at the beauty shop in Renton a few weeks ago with her daughter, and the store clerk kept eyeing her.
“I really think I know you from somewhere,” the clerk insisted. They realized she had been Tyra’s student 15 years ago at John Marshall, often walking laps together around Greenlake after school. “Oh my god, Ms. Williams! You were the best teacher I ever had!” the clerk exclaimed before turning to Tyra’s daughter. “You have the best mom, you are so lucky!”
While the fight for affordable housing persists, Angel, Tyra and the rest of their team will continue to work relentlessly on the behalf of homeless students and families. Their passion, ingenuity, determination, and humor to withstand all the injustice they witness day in and day out is deeply appreciated.